Service of Commissioning, WFU School of Divinity

Luke 14: 1, 7-14: Table Manners

There are few things in this world that I love more than my alma mater, Bowdoin College. If you ask my spouse Raegan about my passion for all things Bowdoin, she will, with a dramatic eye roll and in as sarcastic a tone as she can muster, catalog the many tokens of my undying fealty and devotion to, as she mockingly calls it, “the old school.” There are coffee mugs, baseball caps, t-shirts, calendars, glass tumblers, coasters, a windbreaker, a wooden captain’s chair (with my name emblazoned on it, of course), a paperweight, winter gloves, a sock cap, and most recently, a bow tie that I haven’t even worn yet. (Raegan, I should say, is only jealous because she has nothing to be proud of herself, having attended some stupid university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, notable mostly for its statue of a man with a shiny foot.) You might have seen hanging in my office a framed picture of a college scene. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not Wake Forest. And you might have noticed another framed piece of sheet music, the Bowdoin alma mater, which shares a tune with the Wake Forest fight song.

I regret that many of you are so benighted that you have never heard of Bowdoin College until today. I only mention a few of our many distinguished alumni and friends which that liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, has gifted to the world: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and my personal favorite, the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who, in the 1950s and ‘60s, helped Americans to understand that they were having sex. There is of course much, much more I could say about that great institution. But as sermons constrain the preacher to the sharing of the Good News of the Gospel, I will reserve the Great News of Bowdoin College for another occasion.

You can imagine my shock and dismay when, back in July, I heard a podcast by the well-known author Malcolm Gladwell in which he said, to my utter disbelief, the following words: “If you’re looking at liberal arts colleges, don’t go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin. Don’t give money to Bowdoin or any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall.” Now, I regard myself as a peaceable, nonjudgmental, respectful, conciliatory, and loving person. But here’s the thing: I now hate Malcolm Gladwell with the passion of a thousand burning suns.

You see, Bowdoin is consistently recognized for its excellent food. (I applaud, by the way, the person who decided he or she could make a living rating college food, and also for getting others to believe that this is a meaningful undertaking.) In his podcast, Gladwell compares Bowdoin to Vassar College in New York. He finds that Vassar, similar to Bowdoin in many respects but not quite as wealthy, has decided to cut down on the quality of student amenities in order to free up financial resources to support, as Gladwell calls them, “poor, smart kids.” Vassar students interviewed in the podcast consistently affirm the marginal quality of Vassar’s food but understand that that decision empowers their college to offer more money in financial aid. Bowdoin, meanwhile, serves, and I am embarrassed to say this out loud because it is true, dishes such as smashed chickpea avocado and pesto sandwiches, venison when it is in season, and lobster and steak at an annual celebration welcoming students back to school. Gladwell’s point is that food at Bowdoin is, as he says, a “moral problem,” because, in his words, “every time you spend money on a place like Bowdoin, you make it harder for poor kids to go to college.”

Ugh – a knife to my heart. Now, there are lots of problems with Gladwell’s argument. He ignores the fact that Bowdoin “is among the very small number of colleges that are need blind on admissions, meet full need, and never use loans in any part of a financial aid package, and that Bowdoin’s dining operations are self-supporting, with all funds coming from students who opt to join.” Gladwell doesn’t paint a fine-grained picture of what’s going on. But he’s not wrong about the more general point he’s trying to make: schools like Bowdoin benefit tremendously from their status as nonprofit and therefore tax exempt organizations. They owe an obligation to the public good to find ways to educate as many worthy students who cannot afford the considerable price tag as they can. And even if food isn’t really what is pushing tuition out of reach, the optics of lobster, steak, and venison aren’t helping in that effort. Really, one could say that Gladwell is offering some insights about hospitality – in a way, about table manners – which, as much as it pains me to say it, are helpful.

I thought of Malcolm Gladwell as I considered our text for today, for the text, too, invites us to think about hospitality and table manners. And in the context of a service of commissioning, the text offers us an opportunity to consider ministry from the point of view of table manners. Jesus, invited on the Sabbath to a meal in the home of a Pharisee leader, makes two sets of observations about table manners, one for guests and another for hosts. In the ancient world, the table was laden with a social burden far heavier than the meals it supported. Questions about who got to come to the table, who sat where, in what proximity to whom, who got to speak and when, all mattered a lot. The banquet table was a market in social status, inviting trade in the currencies of honor and shame, and representing opportunities for hosts and guests to establish, maintain, diminish or improve their social status in the performance of shared meals.

Jesus’ advice upends the conventional strategies for success in the markets of social goods that were convened at banquet tables. He implores guests not to jockey for position at the table, and thus for the status that comes with position. For one thing, he seems to be saying, such strategies are liable to backfire: an attempt to position oneself in a place of honor will likely result in demotion, and thus in shame, rather than honor. But more fundamentally, Jesus is saying that true honor comes not with a position at a table, but in the exercise of the virtue of humility. He encourages hosts not to invite those persons most empowered to participate in the trade of social goods – friends, relatives, or wealthy neighbors – but instead to invite those most marginalized from social markets: the least, the lost, and the left out. And here Jesus is clearer about why a host should reverse the conventional strategy for table etiquette: because he or she will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Now, if your table manners are anything like mine, they are instinctual, by now hard-wired in embodied responses to the table, and in the neural pathways that make those responses happen. I know this because I feel so profoundly irritated when my children violate table etiquette. In our house, I’m sorry to report, we don’t always remember Jesus as often as we eat, but do violate table manners as often as we eat. And I have had to learn that while it is important for our children to learn table etiquette, my irritation about their behavior at the table is way more about me than it is about them. It’s about my own formation in a family in which table transgressions, in all of their complexity, were, under the watchful eye of a mother who is a former nun, not just failures in performance, but something more akin to immorality. A lot of that stuff comes out for me now at our table. And I have to work hard to try to re-wire the neural pathways that make those responses what they are. The neural pathways of privilege and power are probably not dissimilar: students at Bowdoin and other high price-tag schools often come from families that enjoy, among other things, elaborate tables, and are wired, on a deep level, to expect the same privileges in their college experience.

Curiously, at first pass, Jesus does not seem to be urging guests and hosts to abandon the fundamental moral logic of the table market, of quid pro quo, a “this” for a “that.” Guests and hosts should not give up trading altogether, in other words. Rather, Jesus seems to be saying that guests and hosts should calculate their trades for the right goods – not social goods, but eternal ones. I think, however, that a deeper consideration reveals that if guests and hosts really do what Jesus is asking, if they practice the virtues of hospitality and humility at the table and in other social markets, they are endeavoring to learn a table etiquette that opens up a different kind of moral awareness. Those who diligently practice humility and hospitality will find that they don’t need to participate in markets for social goods. A training in righteousness, as Jesus calls it, changes the habits of social markets, maybe even those neural pathways that induce us to think we need things that we really don’t – not unlike, perhaps, the Vassar students, who have learned that they don’t need lobster and steak if it means that others have an opportunity to benefit from a Vassar education.

We are about to commission our students to join in the work of God in ministries already underway, all over our city and region. An important part of that work is in empowering the faith communities and organizations in which our students will serve, as well as broader communities, to practice good table manners – to encourage those who hold seats at the table to make space for the those who don’t; to empower conveners of tables to expand their welcome; and to serve in ministries of presence and comfort to those who continue to be excluded or to those who are new participants in table fellowship. And while our banquet tables may not function as social markets in quite the same way as they did in the ancient world, there are certainly many spaces in which the goods of status, prestige, voice, power, and wealth are traded in complex ways that empower some and marginalize others.

This is really hard work. Prophetic speech is an important element in encouraging good table manners, but it’s not enough. It turns out that people don’t do things just because prophets tell them to. Ministers will need to learn the skills of community building and of priestly presence, the many forms of everyday attention to the habits and practices of communities, some of which need encouragement, others refinement, and still others re-calibration. Following the example of Christ, ministers may even need to manipulate the dominant logics of table etiquette in order to dismantle them, performing forms of “table judo” to create the conditions of an expanded hospitality. Practicing the kind of table hospitality that God would have us practice means getting into the neural pathways of people, helping them to notice their embodied patterns of table etiquette, and empowering them to learn new ways of being in the world.

It is a great privilege that communities of faith welcome our students into their ministries. May God bless those communities, our students, and their mentors as all strive to be better hosts and guests at God’s welcome table. Amen.

About the Author

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John Senior is the Director of the Art of Ministry Program and Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

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